tv Tavis Smiley PBS July 27, 2017 6:30am-7:01am PDT
good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. mary-louise parker inherits the best of both worlds for an actre actress. these dominated stages -- she's dominated stages in new york london and now los angeles. from "proof" to her current role in "heisenberg." she's also known for a powerful on-screen characters, whether it was "weeds," "the west wing," or "angels in america." she joins us to discuss the play "heisenberg" now in l.a., her career as well as the upcoming stephen king drama "mr. mercedes." we're glad you've joined us. a conversation with mlp, mary-louise parker, in just a moment. ♪
>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ please welcome mary-louise parker to this program. we were chatting already. for the past two years you've been playing georgie in the broadway play "heisenberg." the work by simon stevens. currently running at the mark taper here in los angeles. if you cannot make it to l.a. to see her in the theater production, you can watch her
next month in the new stephen king series, "mr. mercedes," on the audience network. i am honored to have -- may i call you mlp? >> sure. >> mlp on this program. i've always wanted to say that, like i'm a friend of yours. mlp. yeah. i would say when you came on set, i haven't seen the play yet. i'm dying to see it. from what i've heard about it from friends who have seen it, they give you and your co-star high marks because it's hard to command, to hold command of an audience when there's just two people. not a whole lot of bells and whistles and -- >> yeah. >> what's that experience like? >> well, i feel like the director of this production deserves so much credit because i think it -- for me it takes a lot of confidence as a director, and it's a really risky move to produce a piece of theater where the direction is almost invisible. you don't see it. there's no storms on stage.
there's no set. i'm basically wearing my own clothes -- i am wearing my own clothes. there's no artifice. there's no -- as you said, no bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors. and it's sort of allowed us to delve into the meaning of the text and what simon wrote and this relationship. i think he deserves a -- a lot of credit. >> i want to follow you in here. since we don't have those factors by which to judge how great the direction is -- >> right -- >> how do we -- >> we have to be good. >> you got to be good. how do we judge the brilliance? what are we basing it? >> right. well, for me, there's no point in doing theater really unless you really give everything you have to that moment. and to try to give that
evening's show. because that's what's special about it. it's one of the last -- i was thinking about this the other day. it's one of the last experiences we have as a culture where we're people sitting in a room having this sort of complicit, consensual experience where no one's looking at their phone, they're not supposed to, and we're listening. and that's really rare. you know, church -- i can't think of many other times where people aren't at least expected to or allowed to interact with the device. you know, it's a kind of ritual. it's what i love about it. and i feel -- it takes a lot out of you, and i've been doing it -- i realize i've been doing it for 32 years now professionally. and the last two weeks of the last production i've felt like i had a couple shows earlier where i was like, okay, that was what i meant.
that was what i wanted to do. i think they were sloppy, but -- i felt -- when you're so alive that you feel a sound coming out of you, you feel words coming out of you, and you don't feel completely in control of that. you don't feel like the architect or the driver, if that makes any sense. it's -- it feels sprung, you know. i think that's exciting to watch. >> what -- i'm curious now. what did you do with that feeling? >> i got really talky. i'm sorry. >> no, no. a talk show. what did you do with that feeling? i mean, i -- i think i know what you're feeling because there are times when i'm on stage as a presenter or giving a lecture or talk or some performance and you do feel that. it's a great feeling. to your point it doesn't happen all the time. what do you do with that when you -- >> that's amazing to me that you've felt that -- because i have never felt it as myself in front of people. i don't know that i've felt it in life even as much as i felt it on stage. >> but there are times in --
maybe you're being too -- too kind, but there are times i think for all of us when you walk off stage and you feel like you haven't done your best. there are other times -- way too modest. there are other times that when -- don't you ever like sort of levitate off stage, when you feel like this thing really -- >> yeah -- >> -- really worked tonight. you sort of levitate off stage. >> yeah. i'm quite -- i'm really, really hard on myself. i'm quite unforgiving. that's why -- i think it probably drives some people crazy. i want to stay at rehearsal when everybody wants to go home. but i think that's what's allowed me to do it, it's given me velocity to keep going back. it doesn't feel nice. a feeling in front of a roomful of people, if you feel like you haven't done your best. >> right. >> and often not that the actors always -- the final best judge
of their own work, but -- >> oftentimes they aren't. >> yeah. but i think where i satisfied -- even last week there was something that i just felt i needed to look at the text, and i did. i realized there were two words that i was omitting that over time they'd sort of fallen away. and i thought about what that meant. and just being able to work on things -- you have to become -- if you weren't infused with some kind of energy or passion really, just passion, to have that feeling because not only do you want to give that rightness, that kind of levity to the audience, as well, if you don't have the passion, the need to do it, i don't know why you'd do live theater because it's quite tiring, and people can be a bit brutal with you. not that they aren't lovely and general. it's for that experience and so
humbling at times. transcendent also. >> now, i -- you've completely -- >> lost you? >> yes. >> okay. go ahead. >> here's why --not because i wasn't following you but because i'm trying to understand what drives mlp. which is to say, if you are that hard on yourself, and itened to be that way about myself, the difference between you and me is as hard as i am on myself, i'm not operating in a medium that is that unforgiving. you screw up on the stage, and there are tons of people wan watching you. ostensibly if i made a mistake in the next five minutes, i could stop this and do it over again. the audience would never know i messed up. >> mistakes and feeling that i haven't done my best. i think mistakes are sometimes the greatest opportunity for -- >> i totally agree. what i'm getting at is if you are that hard on yourself, where is the joy in operating in a medium that is that difficult -- >> i think when i feel like i've
done a good job, you go home, you feel wrung out in the best way. and -- at the same time, i don't want to be fully satisfied. i don't think that's who i am. i don't think that's what keeps me going, keeps me trying, keeps me looking. and looking to the other actor and making sure i'm really, really giving them all that i can and -- i don't know. i think -- i don't know that i worked with that many people who i thought were roundly satisfied with themselves artistically who i thought were that -- that grew necessarily over time. you know? because i think that my performance is, if you as -- they often start off in one place. they keep working to the end. they're not finished. it's odd to me sometimes that critics come at the end. feel like sometimes people feel
like it's over now, and it's the beginning of the run. >> getting started. >> a million things to -- i did this one play, and i -- i felt like i discovered the majority of the character of like six weeks in. and i think that's always true. it's so amazing, you know, just standing there in life. i mean, i imagine -- if you've been in rape a relationship -- g one, 20 years or something, sort of my parents, you know, who are 64 years. and then to turn around one day and see that person and an entirely new way and have some feeling wash over you that feels different, i imagine that must be a fort fewing and a really different way than just being in love with somebody for the first time and having the chemical, you know, the epinephrine or high of whatever. i think -- does that make any sense? >> it does. >> instead of having the history behind it and having that be
infused with something new, i think that would be -- >> your parents are still living? >> i mean -- my mother is. >> they were together for 64 years? >> uh-huh. >> see, now you got me really fascinated. what did you learn -- >> not going to happen to me. >> what -- what did you learn watching your parents love on each other? >> oh, god -- >> for 64 years? >> oh, god. >> tell me about that. >> well, in fact, i wrote a book, and i write a lot about my mother and father throughout that book. my father especially. it's dedicated to my mother, the book. and one thing that i -- one moment that when you just said that actually, when you said what have you learned, i don't know, this moment stuck out that i do talk about in my book where my mother and father were with someone else and my mother said something. my father, he felt like he shut her down. and she walked by his door later. he was sitting there staring.
she came and said, what's wrong, honey? he was kind of staring at the wall. he said, i feel like i hurt your feelings, and -- and i -- i just -- i know. makes me want to -- kills me. he just -- that he examined that moment and came to it with humility and said "i'm sorry, i was wrong," and that he was sitting there really thinking about that moment that he was willing to examine it, that she mattered so much to him that it -- it wasn't about his pride and i mean, i think that's what keeps you going over the course of decades, rather than -- >> to stop. i'll be crying. i think we're all going to be crying. such a beautiful story. >> i can't tell the story as well as -- i think i wrote it fairly well. to tell it, i think would mike me dissolve in a way that would be highly unattractive. but you just -- had a thoughtful way about him, my father, and just sitting there considering her, you know, after -- 5.5 decades together.
and apologized -- my father also was brilliant at apologizing. it wasn't -- he didn't expect something back, and he didn't expect to be absolved or anointed by you or something. it was as though he wanted to let you know that he was wrong, and he was going to try. >> i wish your father were alive. i would invite your father in a heartbeat to come on this program. if there's anything that annoys me to no end, it is the inability of us humans, this inability we have to apologize. i remember my mother one day sitting me down as a child and really explaining to me how you appropriate apologize. and even at the highest levels, people don't get it. i think of bill clinton, who i love and like bill clinton, friend of mine, we traveled the world together interviewing tons of times in the white house. you may recall this, and the audience does. he got caught up in the monica lewinsky scandal. this guy could not say "i'm sorry." >> qualified apology -- >> i regret, i regret, i gre--
regret. he could not say "i was wrong, i am sorry." the media beat him down so bad. it took him six tries. he finally got it right at a prayer breakfast where he got it right where he said i'm sorry in the way you're supposed to say i'm sorry. i remember going back in my childhood and my mother teaching me the appropriate way when you are wrong -- >> what did she say? >> i mean, she made the point that -- in the conversation, the point was that if you are -- it's a difference between regret and sorry. there's a difference between i are regret and remorse. just because you regret somethi something doesn't mean you're remorseful about it. there's a language -- >> you wish you hadn't happened -- >> regret means i wish it hadn't happened. i wish i hadn't gotten caught. wish it hadn't come out. i regret. it's very, very different than saying, "i was wrong." i mistreated you, i maltreated
you, i was selfish, i was -- whatever it is. and i'm sorry. will you please forgive mooe. and we live in a world now where people -- let me get off my soapbox here. we live in a world where people think saying i'm sorry diminishes them. >> 100% important. >> your father, he understood this. >> yeah. he was -- he was an animal at it. he was amazing. and the thing that i've noticed -- i don't know if you noticed this in yourself, and i think do owe that gift to my father, is there are times when i do apologize, and there's this little thing in the back of you that wants to say "but, because." i want to qualify, to explain. you're hijacking the other person's -- you know, you're disallowing the ability to, you know, accept it -- >> you're justifying your behavior. that's not a true apology.
if you have to justify why you did what you did, you're not sorry did it. >> the word regret. i haven't thought of it before. sorrow is not implicit in the word. it basically is saying i wish that hadn't happened. not necessarily i wouldn't do it again if no one watched me. if i was certain i wouldn't be caught. and i've thought a lot about that recently about things like -- i don't know, just things that have happened to me over the years or things that people have done to me or things i have done to other people. i think to myself, would i have done that if no one was watching me. it's a quite powerful thought to think, okay, if someone left a million dollars here and said no one will ever catch you, no one will ever know that you took it, would you take it? and i feel -- i feel really, really clear that i would not. i know that there are other
things that i don't feel as clear about that i'm not as proud of that i might do if no one was watching. when you ask yourself those questions, it's powerful. you have to admit yourself where your threshold is. your moral -- >> those are character questions. that's how we define who we are. those are character questions. i'm fascinated by the fact that posthumously your father has led us into a conversation about apologies. proud of your father -- >> he's the most powerful person i've ever known, yeah. he really was. and he -- it was that ability to sort of -- he also is so curious about other people and had such an appetite for books and literature, and people. and there was only -- there were only like a couple of things that i would see him get shut down with people, people who sort of boasted about the wealth, to a certain degree made
them uncomfortable, or people incredibly right wing. for the most part, he would accept anybody, came into the house. >> going to this union, how did you find yourself way into arts, into the theater, into acting? >> well, also recently, again, i thought about my father, is i remembered that when i called him and said, you know, dad, i'm -- i went to north carolina school of the arts, and i don't actually have a proper bachelor's degree. i have a diploma. if you took a certain amount of academic classes you would get a bachelor's degree. it was not that hard. it was four classes or something. only over the first year and a half. and i remember calling my father and saying, i think this is going to interfere with my arts classes, and i want to be an actor, and i'm going to write, and i don't need to take this class. they don't seem inspiring to me.
it's a good decision. all right. he felt like if i made an informed decision, that was the right decision. and i think now if one of my kids came to me and said i'm going to spend four years at college and i'm not going to get a bachelor's degree, would i have the courage to trust in them. would i give them the courage to trust in themselves. >> so you knew early on that you're calling your vocation, your purpose -- that your calling, your vocation, your purpose was in the arts? >> i always hoped i would write. >> yeah. >> and david granger allowed me to write for "esquire." i wrote for "esquire" for about ten years while david was there. i wrote for a few other magazines and wrote a book. as far as acting goes, yeah, i was very, very shy, and i didn't have confidence and stuttered a
bit. i wanted to do that even before i knew what you really called it. i felt comfortable there. >> and aaron associatisorkin sa weren't shy when you left a voicemail. >> i don't remember the voicemail, but i love the story so much that i want to take credit for it. i'm going to say that it's true. i don't fully remember. he says that i called him and sa said, josh lyman needs to get laid, and i'm the one to do it. i do remember that, but i thought i did it after i had done one episode. i'm not sure. i deflt definitely remember saying he needed to get laid because he did. >> it worked out with "west wing." >> i was lucky to be on that show. >> great show. >> his writing was incredible. every time i got a script, i couldn't wait to open it and see what he said. >> let me talk about the play because my time is running out. i could do this for hours. and we jump so fast into
deconstructing your methodology and your on-stage -- your persona and how you measure that. i didn't ask you to say a word about the play itself. >> darn. >> you didn't say a word about the play, mlp. yeah, yeah. >> simon stevens wrote this beautiful, beautiful play that mark directed that i knew i wanted to do on page 3. and it's just about the unexpect unexpected in the "heisenberg" principle. and these people you don't expect to keep speaking after their first greeting. at the end of every scene their relationship could end, and it doesn't. and it always jumps to somewhere very unexpected. and it's -- i think it's a beautiful story. and i love that it's two people who -- there's something about
my character. she's off putting. and i really felt that if i wasn't somewhat embarrassed while playing this part and if i didn't alien update some people in the audience in the first few minutes, that i would be doing something wrong because people, she states that in the text that people pretty much leave the country to get away from her. she's -- there's something abrasive about her that's -- we know she's quite different from me, and i wanted to be able to show both sides of that that there's something sweet in her. the fact that she doesn't filter herself. and there's something honest even in her dishonesty. i love this both exist even at the -- i love that both exist even at the same time when she is unfiltered. when she's telling her own truth, she thinks she's telling the truth. so i found that really interesting. and acting with a particular actor is just exhilarating and
wonderful. >> you must be getting something out of this because you've been at this for a while. >> i think i might be a little addicted to this play. there might be some kind of problem. it's about two weeks before it's quitting. and we go backstage. we'll be like, is there another city where they'd want us to do this play, couldn't somebody call somewhere, berlin, or -- i kind of was definitely not finished with her the first time or the second time, and this time i feel like there's one more in me -- >> one more. tell me about this audience project that you're about to do. >> which one? >> "mr. mercedes." >> oh. >> yeah. >> oh, the -- the "mr. mercedes," yes. i have no earthly idea what network it's on. i'm probably going to get in so much trouble for that -- >> audience. >> the audience. all my friends at the audience network. >> yeah, yeah. >> love them so much. thank you very much for producing that. thank you for having me.
yes. it's inner lodirected by jack b and -- they're delicious and amazing and wonderful. and it's stephen king who's phenomenal and can really -- i think he's -- he knows how to do it. >> before time runs out, you are a writer or an actor first? >> i think i'm a mother. i think i'm a mother number one. >> i take that. >> i think in my heart, i think i might be -- sometimes i feel i'm a little bit better as a writer. but i do -- i do love acting. i love acting on stage. >> and you're pretty good at it. i can't wait to see the play, "heisenberg." i will see it. i will see it. talk to my friends at the audience network. >> sorry! >> we'll be checking it out, mlp, in "mr. mercedes" coming up
in a few weeks, as a matter of fact. honored to have you on. your first time. hopefully not your last. >> thank you very much. >> come and see us again. >> definitely. i would love to. >> you're welcome back any time. that's our show. thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. ♪ >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. >> hi, i'm tavis smiley, join me next time for a conversation with professor david schweickart about alternatives to capitalism and actress jenny slate about her film, "landline." see you then. ♪
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